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California freshmen add diverse mix to a changing Congress

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, at 4:55 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, at 5:35 a.m.

— The new Congress looks like a changing country, and California’s delegation looks a lot like the change.

The Golden State elected more newcomers to the House of Representatives in November than any time in decades, and their varied backgrounds reflect a Congress with a historic number of women, minorities and gays.

There’s Rep. Mark Takano, an openly gay Japanese-American social studies teacher from Riverside. There’s Rep. Raul Ruiz of Coachella, the son of farm workers who earned three graduate degrees at Harvard and came back home to practice medicine.

Another doctor, Rep. Ami Bera of Sacramento, was born to immigrant parents from India. A dairy farmer, Rep. David Valadao of Hanford, was born to immigrant parents from Portugal. And Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod, a former state legislator from Montclair, has 27 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. She’s 71.

“As soon as I arrived, I realized it was an exceptionally diverse class and I was proud to be part of it,” Ruiz said.

The new members also represent a divided country, and they arrived in Washington at a time when Congress has an approval rating of 14 percent. The last Congress enacted 220 pieces of legislation, the lowest number on record.

But some of the 14 incoming members from California believe that they can set aside their differences, build relationships and make this Congress more productive than the last.

“I think the mandate of this election is an expectation by the country that we work in a bipartisan way,” Bera said.

Bera and Ruiz are emblematic of the freshmen members from California. Both are Democrats. Both are doctors. Both defeated longtime incumbent House members who were favored to win. Though they come from different backgrounds and represent different districts, they have bonded over a common purpose: to get things done.

Ruiz grew up in Coachella, a poor farming community, and knocked on his neighbors’ doors asking them to contribute to his college education. He raised $2,000. Ruiz became the first Latino to earn three degrees from Harvard University. He repaid his hometown by returning to practice medicine in what he calls one of the most medically underserved areas of the state.

Ruiz, 40, upset Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack in a district that includes the wealthy resort enclave of Palm Springs. Though it is a different world from the one he grew up in, Ruiz said his experience as a physician prepared him to address the needs of all of his constituents.

“I was elected to represent everybody,” he said. “And that’s what I’m going to do.”

Bera’s parents came to the U.S. from India. He was born in Los Angeles and educated in the University of California system. The 47-year-old freshman lawmaker ran for Congress in 2010 and lost to Republican Rep. Dan Lungren. He won last fall in a close race that wasn’t decided until a month after the election.

“You have to hand it to him,” said Rep. Doris Matsui, a Democrat who also represents the Sacramento area. “He really took account of what he did wrong the first time to make it better the second time.”

Bera said he’s making friends in both parties among his new colleagues.

“We do have challenges ahead of us, but there are also real opportunities for us to work together, if given the chance, across the aisle,” he said.

Of the 14 new members of the 53-member California congressional delegation – the largest in Congress – only four are Republicans. Democrats increased their majority in the delegation last fall to 38 seats.

“There are large swatches of the state where the Republican Party doesn’t even exist,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.

Several factors helped Bera and Ruiz win. The state has a large population of Hispanics and Asian Americans, who voted in high numbers for Democrats. Redistricting turned safe districts more competitive, including Bera’s and Ruiz’s. And the Republican Party is overwhelmingly white and male in a state and a country that increasingly is not.

Mark Lopez, associate director of the Pew Research Hispanic Center in Washington, said that while California today has a diversity shared by few other states, that will change in the next 50 years.

“That diversity looks like what the U.S. will look like,” he said.

Pitney said that state Republican Chairman Tom Del Beccaro has a lot of work ahead of him.

“I think he realizes the Republican Party, literally, has to show a new face,” Pitney said. “He’s already made it clear that this is a top priority. He definitely does not want to recruit candidates that all look like Mitt Romney.”

But Ruiz said it isn’t about simply having candidates whose faces look like those of their constituents. Bera, Ruiz and other winning candidates connected with Californians on issues they care about: the economy, health care, immigration and education.

“I think that we have reached a level of sophistication to identify skilled individuals no matter their background who are willing to serve the district and make the change that the residents want to see,” he said. “That’s something that’s amazing about our region.”

Email: ctate@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @tatecurtis

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